Independent media have complained of intimidation ahead of March polls that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win, from official probes to the closure of a talk show featuring protest leaders.
Earlier this week, liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta admitted it could not pay staff after security services raided the bank of its co-owner Alexander Lebedev, who owns Britain’s Independent, and froze his account.
The editor of the outspoken anti-Kremlin newspaper, Dmitry Muratov, alleged that the probe directly targeted the newspaper.
“The authorities are using force to make us change our editorial policy, but they don’t have a good understanding of our journalists’ psychology,” Muratov said on Wednesday.
He vowed the newspaper, whose investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in 2006, would not back down.
“We have known worse. This is not the way to intimidate us,” he said.
He said the newspaper’s troubles “fit into a general trend” of pressure on independent media ahead of the polls.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe media freedom representative Dunya Mijatovic told Interfax news agency on Tuesday that Russia practiced “soft” censorship, including officials bribing journalists and using violence or the threat of violence on media.
On Feb. 14, the editor of leading liberal radio station Moscow Echo announced its chief shareholder, Gazprom-Media holding, was calling early elections for its board and pushing out two independent directors.
The move was “undoubtedly an attempt to correct editorial policy,” editor Alexei Venediktov said, blaming pressure from the Russian leadership.
Putin last month publicly attacked the talk station, accusing it of pouring “diarrhea” on him.
TV Dozhd, an Internet TV channel that gives a platform to the opposition and closely follows protests, in turn found itself the target of a prosecutors’ probe ordered by a lawmaker from the ruling party.
General director Natalia Sindeyeva on Feb. 16 posted on Twitter a scanned letter from prosecutors announcing a probe of the financing of its coverage of rallies against fraud-tainted polls and Putin’s return to power.
United Russia deputy Robert Shlegel said he ordered the probe to check rumors that the channel was financed from abroad or by protest organizers.
Youth channel MTV Russia pulled a talk show discussing politics after just one episode, with high-profile host Ksenia Sobchak blaming her plan to invite on charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny. Sobchak, a prolific television and radio host whose father was Putin’s mentor as governor of St Petersburg, has unexpectedly backed the protests and pushed for the talk show State Department on MTV Russia.
The first episode featured a strongly-worded debate — even breaking into scuffles — between opposition activists rarely given airtime and pro-Kremlin politicians.
On Feb. 14, MTV said it had suspended the show to “define its format,” claiming viewers were not interested in politics, while Sobchak said it blocked the show after Navalny agreed to appear.
She told the Moscow Echo the closure was “clearly not the decision” of the director of the channel, part of a private holding controlled by billionaire Vladimir Potanin.
“This is a really significant incident. It’s 100 percent political censorship,” said Ilya Yashin, an activist from the Solidarity opposition movement, who was a guest on the show. “The show had a soaring rating” and so the channel’s explanation “holds no water,” he added. “It was an absolutely commercial project.”